BBC Concert Orchestra – 50 Years Young

Scottish Dances
Coates arr. Docker
The Green Hills o’ Somerset
Music and Silence [BBC commission: world premiere]
Carnival – Concert Overture, Op.92
Westminster Waltz
Gershwin arr. Docker
Strike Up the Band
Hope (arr.)
Opera Olio
Langford (arr.)
Showtime Carousel
Liszt arr. Torch
Hungarian Rhapsody No.2
Havanaise *

Jennifer Pike (violin) *

Brian Kay (presenter)

Anniversary Chorus
BBC Concert Orchestra
Barry Wordsworth

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: 18 September, 2002
Venue: Royal Festival Hall, London

Party-pooping first. I haven’t heard anything as crass as Opera Olio – a farrago indeed – for some time. It would have been funny if it wasn’t so serious: a string of opera bits slung together and re-orchestrated as required (badly) with a quartet of singers, not helped by ill-fitting English translations, deserving the anonymity the programme granted them. Brian Kay will reveal their names on the Radio 3 broadcast on 14 October. And that’s why he was there – to introduce the concert for radio listeners. Otherwise do we need somebody to read the programme notes? Mr Kay is as good as anybody in this role, better than most in fact, not least for being concise and confiding (like Radio 3 used to be) and he deserved better than having the music start the moment he’d finished. Could he not have been given a chair? Or allowed time to exit? He was in no man’s land at the beginning of the Coates – having slipped in a well-timed viola gag – as Robert Docker’s arrangement of the voice and piano original begun, initially like Vaughan Williams then plummeting to bombast. Didn’t think much of his circus-y Gershwin arrangement either.

It gets better now but hold the champagne. Gordon Langford’s medley of show-hits is vibrant and virtuoso if a tad overblown and miscalculated: the banjo was inaudible in Hello, Dolly! And what he does to West Side Story – a league apart and unique generically – is unforgivable. Sidney Torch – the architect of “Friday Night is Music Night”, the BBCCO a stalwart of the Radio 2 programme – had a good go at Liszt’s Rhapsody, more Haslemere than Hungarian Plain but pretty stylish except for overdosing on percussion. Why do arrangers fall for this sop so often? Michael Pearce’s clarinet solo added some paprika.

Nearly ready to uncork the bottle. Malcolm Arnold raised the stakes with his dances, although it’s not difficult to imagine a wittier performance, and the ’drunken’ bassoon was overdone – best to trust the composer here! Dvoøák opened the evening. Barry Wordsworth (the BBCCO’s conductor since 1989) set a sensible tempo, and if the performance was a little bumpy and coarse, Cynthia Fleming’s rapt violin solo stood out.

OK, fill the glasses for a toast. This 50th-birthday concert celebrated the BBC Concert Orchestra, a versatile band that performs a huge range of music to an equally huge audience. It was in marvellous form, especially in the ’light’ second half, the highlights being a classy rendition of Robert Farnon’s Westminster Waltz, a gem, and Stanley Black’s brilliant version of Manhattan Skyline, played as an encore; good to see Mr Black, 90 next year, in the audience.

I would love to have heard Ronald Binge’s wonderful Elizabethan Serenade, and while the programming was understandably retrospective – the quaintly-named Anniversary Chorus being made up of solo and choir singers from Friday nights of yesteryear – the future was also on the agenda. 12-year-old Jennifer Pike is this year’s BBC Young Musician and she played with confidence, finesse and naturalness, and some nice if ’learnt’ touches; with a developing personality she should go far.

Anne Dudley is the BBCCO’s first Composer in Association; her versatility matches that of the orchestra. Music and Silence, based on Rose Tremain’s book, is in six segued sections. Skilfully and imaginatively scored, Dudley leans to her classical side without hiding her film interests. Accessible without pandering, I did not detect the Bartók and Stravinsky she mentioned to me in interview (for “What’s On in London”). It was Humphrey Searle at the opening (although I doubt he used the glass harmonica!) and Lutoslawski come the last section (Concerto for Orchestra, second movement); in between the silver screen was evinced, more suggestive than descriptive, and very listenable as sound and atmosphere.

Happy Birthday!

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